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From The Pen Of Presley


There’s an old adage that runs through the thread of rock-and-roll lore. Whatever feat of fame or infamy some latter day rock star performs, someone will trot out the maxim “Elvis did it first, did it best, and looked better doing it!” But for all the firsts and ‘greatests‘, it actually took Elvis a while to finally do something many artists who followed took for granted. It took Presley almost seven years to get around to recording a song he actually wrote. There were two of them.

Now, from the time Colonel Tom Parker took over running the show, almost every song Elvis recorded either listed him as an author, or somewhere in the paperwork tapped the songwriting royalty till with a direct drain into the Presley coffers. These business arrangements would exact a half or a third of the writers‘ take, without direct compositional collaboration from Elvis. Some writers initially balked, but a nice five-figure royalty check would often serve to soothe chafed feelings and bruised egos. Some folks, not many, but some, actually refused the un-refusable offer. Dolly Parton, for instance, wouldn’t let Elvis cover “I Will Always Love You” because of the demand for a share of the royalties.

Red West was a regular in the Presley entourage, and a friend who went all the way back to Humes High. In years to come, we would see his performances as an actor on TV, and in movies such as Road House. In the early 60’s, he was developing his talents as a songwriter. 1961, Pat Boone recorded a song Red wrote, “A Thousand Years,” as the B-side of Pat’s hit single “Moody River.” Elvis encouraged Red’s talent, and contributed a title which West fleshed into a song. “That’s Someone You Never Forget,” credited to Elvis Presley and Red West, made it to tape in the summer of ’61.

Charlie Hodge started out as a singer in The Foggy River Boys, a gospel quartet. He played a 1955 gig in Memphis, and Elvis came backstage to meet the group. They would meet again in the Army. Hodge would eventually become the stage manager when Elvis resumed touring in the late 60’s. Charlie sang a rare duet with Elvis in 1960, on the song “I Will Be Home Again.” And Hodge would team up with Presley and Red West to write a song recorded in the March, 1962 RCA session. The idea was to continue the trend of coupling familiar public domain melodies with romantic lyrics which had worked so well on “It’s Now Or Never” and “Surrender.” In this case, “Begin The Beguine” was selected as the base for reconstruction. The Cole Porter composition had one major flaw; it wasn’t yet in public domain, and Porter’s people refused to allow permission for them to use it. Charlie Hodge came to the rescue, devising an original melody, and the recording of the resulting song, “You’ll Be Gone,” was able to go on as scheduled.

The biggest hit to come out of the session wasn’t that original tune, but rather a Doc Pomus collaboration with the Leiber-Stoller team. “She’s Not You” would hit the top 5 in September of ’62.

That November, an Otis Blackwell song would take Elvis to number two. “Return To Sender” came from the soundtrack of Presley’s second of three movies filmed in Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! For the preceding seven years, Elvis set the music world on fire. By comparison, the next seven years found his recording career moved to the back burner. More emphasis on movies, less interest in studio recording, and the requirement that Elvis pick songs based on financial arrangements rather than artistic merit, all contributed to his underperformance.

By the way, those original Elvis compositions would actually sit on the shelf for years before seeing the light of day. “You’ll Be Gone” came out as the B-side of the vaunted “Do The Clam” single in 1965. “That’s Someone You Never Forget” sat forgotten until 1967, when it backed “Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On).” In the summer of love, that single didn’t get much love, floundering at #63 on the charts. 

My heroes have always been disc jockeys. I especially admired the ones who could take the canvas of the fourteen-second intro of a teeny-bopper song and paint a masterpiece. From my youth, I strove to emulate them. I had the good fortune to walk in some of their footsteps, albeit a respectful pace behind.